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Chiefs offensive line vs the Chargers: That’ll work

There are some weeks this job is quite fun. Weeks where there are so many things I WANT to watch on film that the task is daunting from a time standpoint. This is one of those weeks.

There are very few things more fun to watch than a great offensive line performance, at least for me. And the Chiefs played well across the board against the Chargers on Sunday. Everyone could see that as the game was progressing. But for me (because I have a problem), knowing the line as a whole played well wasn’t enough.

Which lineman played the best? How did Bryan Witzmann do at guard? What about Zach Fulton, back to playing the position he’s clearly most comfortable? Was Mitch Schwartz as awesome as it seemed? Is LDT finally back? Did Eric Fisher turn around what’s been a rough season? There’s only one way to answer these questions, of course, was to turn on the film.

Normally, when I do a review like this, I go very in depth on one particular player. Today, since we’re taking a look at all five offensive linemen, it’s not going to be as detailed on each one. Instead, I’ll present their numbers (if you need a refresher on how this process works, click here) and give a quick commentary on each player, then discuss the line’s overall play and why it’s been different the last couple of weeks. I guess we might as well start with Fisher and go left to right.

(Quick note: if you’ll recall, “PB” means “pass block” and “RB” means “run block”)

Eric Fisher

Fisher has had a tough year by my eye. While I haven’t gone back and reviewed his snaps until this week, and it’s always very dangerous to gauge a player based on anecdotal evidence, he’s popped out during my Alex Smith reviews, and I don’t mean that in a positive way. For whatever reason, his pass protection and run blocking both seem to have taken a step back this season.

It stands fitting, then, that Fisher is the only lineman against the Chargers who had a loss percentage above 10 percent, which is where I set the standard for whether a lineman played well. To be fair, Fisher was barely over 10 percent, was matched up against one of the very best pass rushing duos in the the NFL, and didn’t receive a lot of help throughout the game on the edge.

While the Chiefs did use their TEs and RBs to chip edge rushers a bit more than normal (they help their tackles less than anyone in the league, and it’s not even close), Fisher spent a ton of snaps on an island against Bosa or Ingram. That’s a tough way to make a living, and Fisher held his own the vast majority of the game, so I’m willing to still call his game a good one despite being above my magic line.

It tells you how good a game the OL had when “pretty good” was the worst performance of the day. If Fisher plays at this level the rest of the season, we’ll be fine.

Bryan Witzmann

Witzmann had a nice game at LG, which was encouraging moving forward. While I’m still not sure about his overall strength, he’s a really good fit for the type of run blocking the Chiefs want to see from their guards, with the ability to get into space quickly.

The Chiefs went back to running a ton of outside zone looks recently (we’ll get to that), and Witzmann is a great fit for that. He’s very athletic and shows a knack for being able to navigate through the muck to find his spot (in a zone scheme, you’re blocking whoever is in a certain zone, rather than a specific defender. Zone, get it?). He’s also a pretty good finisher when he reaches guys in space, which is important for a lineman being asked to go after smaller, faster players at the next level.

Witzmann seems to have improved (at least for this particular game in his pass protection as well, showing a bit more strength and doing a better job with stunts (the latter was a big reason I favored Parker Ehinger over him early in the season). He worked pretty well with both Fisher and Fulton in helping keep Alex comfortable.

Overall, Witzmann was a big part of the running game’s success while being solid enough in pass protection to get by. Plus game for the new guy.

Zach Fulton

Ever since the playoffs of 2015, people have been clamoring for Zach Fulton to play center, talking about his superior strength (he’s absolutely stronger than Morse) as the primary reason. It’s been such a common thought that I discussed it at length in his film review after the 2015 season.

Zach Fulton is absolutely better at center than he is at guard. Of that I have no doubt. However, both last year and in 2015, he was a significant downgrade from Morse in terms of loss percentage, awareness in pass protection (as a helper in blocking, a huge deal for a center), and ability to execute the types of pull blocks in space the Chiefs expected from the center. So I’ve always shot down any idea of keeping Fulton at center and moving Morse to guard (plus there’s the whole “who knows how a move to guard will go for Morse).

Anyways, if Fulton continues to play like he did Sunday, I’d be willing to start entertaining the conversation.

Fulton, even more than Witzmann, was a major part of the Chiefs’ success running the ball against the Chargers. What was interesting to me was the way the Chiefs used him as opposed to the way they’ve often used Morse. Fulton was asked to make blocks in space, but rather than asking him to travel great distances he was generally only asked to travel a little ways laterally or straight forward. It was Witzmann and LDT who were asked to do the pulling and moving.

This was a nice adjustment by Andy Reid and Matt Nagy to take advantage of Fulton’s strength (you know, strength) and minimize his weakness (slower feet than Morse). And Fulton really thrived. Again, his run blocking was key throughout the game.

As a pass protector, Fulton appears to have taken a step forward (at least based on this game, so small sample size alert). In previous seasons, while Fulton was stout one on one against individual interior linemen, his shortcoming was in his awareness as a help man, which is absolutely crucial for centers (they are often left without a defender to block). The ability to look for work is something that your center must have, and Fulton was much more active in keeping his head up, finding where he was needed, and getting there than he has been in years past. He’s still not Morse’s equal there, but it’s not longer a massive gap.

Fulton additionally did a much better job against stunts and blitzes than I’ve seen in previous years, which was another problem he had relative to Morse. His improvement in that area might be the biggest step forward he’s taken, at least based on the Chargers game. In the past, it was nearly a guarantee that at least 3x a game a stunting lineman would go unnoticed by Fulton. It happened once against the Chargers with Fulton handling a number of other stunts perfectly.

Fulton played well enough at center that for the first time I’m happy with him there, rather than merely comfortable. It’ll be interesting what the offseason brings for him if he keeps this up.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif

LDT is back. After a leg injury took him out for multiple games, he returned and definitely looked a step down from the dominant performances we saw from him earlier this season.

Now he’s back to looking like one of the best 2 players on the line, and was an absolute force as a run blocker while being a nearly impassable wall as a pass blocker. He and Schwartz were almost perfect against multiple aggressive stunts by the Chargers throughout the game.

That’s Bosa and Ingram running a stunt, and LDT does exactly what you want to see done against that look: just LAYS OUT the guy stunting inside. The fact that it’s one of the best pass rushers in the league is just a bonus. LDT has developed into a very nasty blocker, and it’s fun to watch.

You can look at the other gifs in this article to see LDT playing phenomenal football throughout the contest. He wasn’t just “not losing” (which is the biggest deal for a lineman), he was taking the next step and dealing out win after win. While Fulton and Witzmann both played well (the interior line was key in dominating the Chargers on the ground), LDT was the guy from which everything stemmed.

LDT was one of the best guards in the league prior to getting hurt this season, and he looks like he’s back in that form.

Mitch Schwartz

The only reason LDT wasn’t the best offensive lineman on the field on Sunday was that Schwartz had a close to perfect game as a pass protector against Bosa and Ingram. It didn’t matter who the Chargers lined up against him, Schwartz shut them down.

I could show you over a dozen gifs of Schwartz dominating the edge rushers the Chargers threw at him, largely on his own. He had 1 loss and one near-loss in pass protection, and beyond that pitched a shutout. It was glorious.

In addition, Schwartz was asked to make some blocks in the running game that a lot of RTs can’t make, pulling into space and traveling quite a ways on some plays. He rose to the challenge nicely and was another important aspect in the run game’s success.

The Chiefs ask Schwartz to be on an island against pass rushers more than they do anyone else. He’s also matched up constantly against the Millers, Macks, and Bosas of the world. Despite that, he’s been fantastic this season, allowing very little pressure under incredibly difficult circumstances. This game was no exception.

Overall impression: What’s changed?

I’ve had a lot of people ask me why the line has looked so much better the last couple of weeks. This is a great question, as having Fulton swap in for Morse at center has never traditionally made the line look better, and having Witzmann at guard doesn’t seem like a natural step forward. Plus, it’s the whole line that looks better, not just those two spots. So what’s going on?

Well, it starts with simplicity. I asked Geoff Schwartz (a great Twitter follow) what he thought the Chiefs were doing differently. His response was a glorious example of Occam’s Razor once again winning the day.

The Chiefs never really stopped running outside zone, but they DID try a bunch of other stuff that wasn’t working. They were asking their guys to execute combo blocks that they simply weren’t able to make happen. So they’ve simplified things (like I discussed above a bit with regards to Fulton) and are just asking players to do the things they KNOW they can do.

Just crazy enough to work, eh?

They’re not asking Fulton to run 8-10 yards through traffic to find someone at the second level, they’re asking him to block the guy in front of him OR move a limited space in one direction. They’re not asking Witzmann to plow over a defensive lineman, they’re asking him to get into space and wall off a linebacker or secondary player. Again, simplified.

An additional factor, I believe, is health. Mitch Morse was playing the worst football of his career after coming back from his initial leg injury. He was clearly hobbled, and eventually went to injured reserve. Swapping in Fulton, who is playing easily the best he’s ever played at center, HAS been an upgrade (would it be an upgrade over a healthy Morse? I don’t think so, no). And because of Fulton’s well-chronicled struggles at guard, Witzmann has been able to be an upgrade at the LG position as well. In the meantime, LDT has rounded into form. In short, the entire interior line has upgraded the last few weeks for one reason or another.

Again, it’s important to keep in mind that this is just one game (though the line did against the Raiders as well). The real test will be one of consistency.

On a final note... everyone is going to ask, “So, do the Chiefs keep Fulton at center and move Morse to guard next year?”

People have been asking that for years, and I’ve constantly shot down the idea for a few reasons:

  1. We don’t know how well Morse would play at guard.
  2. Morse has been a much, much better center than Fulton, who was merely competent.

Well, factor No. 2 may be changing IF Fulton continues to play at the level he’s currently playing and doesn’t regress back to how he’s played at center in previous years. He’s also up for free agency, so the matter of cost must be considered (Morse is under contract for 2018)

I guess I would say this ... if Fulton play as well for the rest of the year as he did against the Chargers (which would put him as only a small step down from what healthy Morse does), then perhaps they should at least have a conversation. Morse did move from tackle to center from college to the pros, and his status as a technician and particular skillset certainly SEEM like he’d be a solid guard. So again, IF Fulton continues to play at this high a level, it’s worth having a conversation that would’ve been crazy before now.

However, at the moment, the biggest takeaway for me was that the Chiefs OL is fun to watch again. Hopefully that trend continues.

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